In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on August 29, 2011 at 4:36 pm

It’s been a week full of shocks… and aftershocks. You would have thought an earthquake followed by a hurricane would have been enough of a jolt for folks who don’t typically live through either event in a decade let alone a single week. But, in some ways, the weather and the seismic activity weren’t the most stunning events of the past seven or eight days.

I’m still staggered by the death of longtime Oriole, Mike Flanagan. Self-inflicted gunshot to the head. A suicide. He was 59.

I seriously doubt that anyone who knew Mike saw this coming. I hadn’t seen him in person or interviewed him since 2007 when Cal Ripken was elected to the Hall of Fame. ‘Flanny’ was then, as the stories you’ve been reading about him since his death have indicated, a nice guy. My memories of him are of someone who always seemed to have time for you; someone who took care to give you an intelligent quote or a nice soundbite—often with a humorous twist.

The police report suggests “financial troubles” as the major contributor to his death although several news agencies reported there was no outward sign of money problems, bankruptcy, foreclosure, etc. Of course, Mike didn’t leave a note, so we’ll probably never know the whole story. WBAL-TV in Baltimore reported that sources strongly suggested that the Orioles struggles on the field over the past 14 years weighed heavily on Mike. The O’s haven’t had a winning season since 1997 and their wire-to-wire run to the A.L. East title.

WBAL quoted a source as saying that Flanagan was “despondent over what he considered a false perception from a community he loved of his role in the team’s prolonged failure.” Even after the police report seemed to discount that, WBAL issued a statement saying that it “stands by its story.”

I can’t imagine anyone holding Mike Flanagan solely accountable for the Orioles current losing ways. Frankly, he’s among the least likely targets of the fans’ ire. Owner Peter Angelos is the most-hated baseball man in Baltimore for a reason. And, even though Flanagan was a key player in the O’s front office for several seasons, he’s just one of six men who have served as a de facto G.M. under Angelos. And, Flanagan never served alone. He never wielded solo supreme power. He was either paired with Jim Beattie or Jim Duquette during his days as a Vice President of Baseball Operations, so the blame (if there must be blame) is to be shared by many in the Orioles franchise. Trust me, this mess isn’t Flanagan’s fault. Yes, the Beattie-Flanagan combo gave us a past-his-prime Javy Lopez, but it was the sainted Pat Gillick who signed Albert Belle.

You can never know what someone really thinks about himself or others. On the surface, Flanagan was a popular player, coach, executive and TV analyst for the Orioles; a member of the Orioles organization in some capacity since the mid-70’s. It’s a shame, if the WBAL report is true, that the team’s on-field struggles led to Flanagan’s off-field struggles. Struggles that he felt he could not win.

Speaking of a struggle that will be, at best, difficult to win, we shift the focus to Tennessee women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt.

The 59-year-old Summitt has announced that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia—Alzheimer’s.

Pat told the Washington Post and her hometown Knoxville paper that she became concerned with her cognitive abilities last season while she was “trying to coach and figure out schemes… and it wasn’t coming to me.”

I can’t picture women’s college basketball without Pat Summitt prowling the sideline. And, yet, that day will come, and sadly, sooner than expected. She has no immediate plans to quit coaching, nor should she. She told the media and Volunteer fans that she will “rely on her assistants” more than ever and will work hard to keep her mind sharp.

Folks who know Pat will all say that if somebody can take Alzheimer’s head on, it’s her. But, the track record of this disease does not bode well for Summitt or anyone who receives this diagnosis.

My last contact with Pat was several years ago when she was a consultant to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics during the Chamique Holdsclaw-era. But, I’ll never forget the first time I met her. It was the summer of 1984. She was the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic team. I was doing a story on her point guard, Kansas-grad Lynette Woodard, and caught up with the team at the San Diego Sports Arena just ahead of a pre-Olympic exhibition game.

All I really knew about Pat was “The Stare.” Before Jon Gruden developed “Chucky,” Pat Summitt gave us the “The Stare.” In a word—intimidating. And, I was expecting the worst. Curt answers. The “I have to prepare for the world, and I don’t have time for you” attitude.

The interview had been scheduled on the fly, and the best Team USA could offer was a concrete storage room in the basement of the arena near the locker room. My photographer struggled to light it and make it look like anything other than what it really was. I struggled to pare down a list of questions to fit the 15 minutes I had been granted.

Long story short. Pat Summitt stunned me with her warmth. She actually asked me questions to get to know me a little better. She double-checked the pronunciation of my name. The interview, albeit brief, was wonderful and added a great dimension to my piece on Woodard. I never forgot that night (in part because men’s team coach Bob Knight swore at us because our TV lights were too bright), and anytime people called Pat ‘cold’ or were intimidated by ‘the stare,’ I recalled for them my first meeting with her.

In the many years since that night in San Diego, Pat was won more games than any coach in college basketball history, man or woman. She’s won eight NCAA titles. Appeared in 18 Final Fours. Been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Coached some of the best players in Tennessee and NCAA history.

We’ll never forget her. But, there may come a time when she’ll not be able to remember her 37-plus years at Tennessee. For her, the titles, the players, the winning moments will be lost. And, that will truly be a loss for us all.

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

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